Pope Benedict XVI accepts invitation to visit Phanar

When Pope Paul VI arrived at the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul’s Phanar district in July 1967, in the first visit after many centuries by a head of the Roman Catholic Church, he expressed his astonishment at the simplicity of the building that housed the heart of Orthodoxy. The visit marked the beginning of a dialogue that was pushed along by Pope John Paul II, who visited the Phanar in 1979. This coming November, the Patriarchate’s heavy wooden entrance door is to open once more for a pontiff, when new Pope Benedict XVI looks set to make the journey to the heart of Orthodoxy. The new pontiff has from the outset emphasized the need for unity within Christendom, and has placed special emphasis on improving relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. He reiterated as much in his meeting last week with three metropolitans who represented the patriarch at celebrations marking the enthronement of Benedict XVI. Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamo, who headed the delegation, extended an invitation to the pope to visit Istanbul which, according to sources, was accepted. Benedict reportedly reiterated his desire to support the activities of the Orthodox patriarch, a declaration that was interpreted as a message to Turkey regarding its future in Europe. The Vatican misses no opportunity to emphasize its interest in the problems the Patriarchate faces in Istanbul. The pope’s visit, which will most likely take place on November 30, will be a major step toward resuming the dialogue between the two churches that was abandoned in 2000 over the thorny dispute regarding the Uniats (Eastern Christian churches in communion with the Roman Catholic Church but which retain their own languages and rites.) The dialogue had been initiated by Patriarch Dimitrios and Pope John Paul II during the latter’s visit to the Phanar a year after his enthronement; the Holy See had even issued a stamp depicting the two Church leaders embracing. «We must unite our forces and spare no efforts so that the official dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, begun in 1980, is resumed with renewed force,» the new pope told the patriarchal delegation last week. Both churches want to continue the effort at rapprochement aimed at full unity begun by Paul VI and Athinagoras in 1964. The pope’s imminent visit to the Phanar has attracted the interest of diplomats and politicians alike. «(The visit) is of considerable political importance because the Vatican’s position is known to Turkey; the period between now and October 3 [when Turkey is set to begin accession talks with the EU] is extremely crucial for its future in Europe,» said one diplomatic source.

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